Media Creators Worry About New AI-Video Tool by Maker of ChatGPT

paris — A new artificial intelligence tool that promises to create short videos from simple text commands has raised concerns along with questions from artists and media professionals. 

OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT and image generator DALL-E, said Thursday it was testing a text-to-video model called “Sora” that can allow users to create realistic videos with simple prompts. 

The San Francisco-based startup says Sora can “generate complex scenes with multiple characters, specific types of motion, and accurate details of the subject and background,” but admits it still has limitations, such as possibly “mixing up left and right.” 

Here are early reactions from industries that could be affected by the new generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool:   

Examples of Sora-created clips on OpenAI’s website range widely in style and subject, from seemingly real drone footage above a crowded market to an animated bunny-like creature bouncing through a forest. 

Thomas Bellenger, founder and art director of Cutback Productions, has been carefully watching the evolution of generative AI image generation.   

“There were those who felt that it was an unstoppable groundswell that was progressing at an astonishing rate, and those who just didn’t want to see it,” said Bellenger, whose France-based company has created large scale visual effects for such touring musicians as Stromae and Justice. 

He said the development of generative AI has “created a lot of debate internally” at the company and “a lot of sometimes visceral reactions.” 

Bellenger noted that Sora has yet to be released, so its capabilities have yet to be tested by the public. 

“What is certain is that no one expected such a technological leap forward in just a few weeks,” Bellenger said. “It’s unheard of.” 

He said whatever the future holds, they’ll “find ways to create differently.” 

Mixed reaction among creators

Video game creators are equally likely to be impacted by the new invention, with reaction among the sector divided between those open to embracing a new tool and those fearing it might replace them. 

French video game giant Ubisoft hailed the OpenAI announcement as a “quantum leap forward” with the potential to let players and development teams express their imaginations. 

“We’ve been exploring this potential for a long time,” a Ubisoft spokesperson told AFP. 

Alain Puget, chief of Nantes-based studio Alkemi, said he won’t replace any artists with AI tools, which “only reproduce things done by humans.” 

Nevertheless, Puget noted, this “visually impressive” tool could be used by small studios to produce more professionally rendered images. 

While video “cut scenes” that play out occasionally to advance game storylines are different from player-controlled action, Puget expects tools like Sora to eventually be able to replace “the way we do things.”   

‘A terrifying leap’

Basile Simon, a former journalist and current Stanford University researcher, thinks there has been “a terrifying leap forward in the last year” when it comes to generative AI allowing realistic-looking fabrications to be rapidly produced. 

He dreads the idea of how such tools will be abused during elections and fears the public will “no longer know what to believe”. 

Julien Pain of French TV channel France Info’s fact-checking program “Vrai ou Faux” (True or False) says he’s also worried about abuse of AI tools. 

“Until now, it was easy enough to spot fake images, for example by noticing the repetitive faces in the background,” Pain said. “What this new software does seems to be on another level.” 

While OpenAI and U.S. tech titans may promote safety tools, such as industry-wide watermarks that reveal AI-created imagery, “what about tomorrow’s competitors in China and Russia?” he posited. 

The Fred & Farid agency, which has collaborated with the Longchamp and Budweiser brands and where a studio dedicated to AI was opened in early January, anticipates that “80 percent of brand content will be generated by artificial intelligence.” 

“Creative genius” will no longer be limited by production skills thanks to generative AI tools, one enthusiast contended.   

Stephanie Laporte, chief executive and founder of the OTTA advertising and influencer agency, believes the technology will “force the industry to evolve.” 

She also anticipates ad companies with lean budgets will resort to AI tools to save money on workers. 

A possible exception, she believes, is the luxury segment, where brands are “very sensitive to authenticity” and “will probably use AI sparingly.” 

Foreign Minister Says Cutting China Out of Trade Would Be Historic Mistake

MUNICH — China’s foreign minister told a gathering of international security policy officials Saturday that trying to shut China out of trade in the name of avoiding dependency would be a historic mistake.

Wang Yi spoke at the Munich Security Conference. Host Germany wants to avoid over-reliance on trade with an increasingly assertive China and diversify its supply of key goods in an approach it calls “de-risking.” That’s in line with the approach of other industrial powers in the Group of Seven, which has stressed that it doesn’t seek to harm China or thwart its development.

Beijing has criticized the strategy.

“Today … more people have come to realize that the absence of cooperation is the biggest risk,” Wang said through an interpreter. “Those who attempt to shut China out in the name of de-risking will make a historical mistake.”

“The world economy is like a big ocean that cannot be cut into isolated lakes,” he said. “The trend toward economic globalization cannot be reversed. We need to work together to make globalization more universally beneficial and inclusive.”

Wang also renewed China’s pushback against allegations of forced labor in the western Xinjiang region, where it is accused of running labor transfer programs in which Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities are forced to toil in factories as part of a longstanding campaign of assimilation and mass detention.

He complained of “fabricated information from different parties” and asserted that the aim is “to stop the development of China.”

Japan’s New Flagship H3 Rocket Reaches Orbit in Key Test

TOKYO — Japan’s flagship H3 rocket reached orbit and released two small observation satellites in a key second test following a failed debut launch last year, buoying hope for the country in the global space race.

The H3 rocket blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Center on time Saturday morning, two days after its originally scheduled liftoff was delayed by bad weather.

The rocket successfully reached orbit at an altitude of about 670 kilometers (about 420 miles) and released two satellites, said the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

“We feel so relieved to be able to announce the good results,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told a news conference.

The H3’s main missions are to secure independent access to space and be competitive as international demand for satellite launches grows. “We made a big first step today toward achieving that goal,” Yamakawa said.

The launch is a boost for Japan’s space program following a recent streak of successes, including a historic precision touchdown on the moon of an unmanned spacecraft last month.

The liftoff was closely watched as a test for Japan’s space development after H3, in its debut flight last March, failed to ignite the second-stage engine. JAXA and its main contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have been developing H3 as a successor to its current mainstay, H-2A, which is set to retire after two more flights.

JAXA H3 project manager Masashi Okada called the result “perfect,” saying H3 cleared all missions set for Saturday’s flight. “After a long wait, the newborn H3 finally had its first cry.”

At 57 meters (187 feet) long, the H3 is designed to carry larger payloads than H-2A at much lower costs of about 50 billion yen ($330 million).

Endangered Rhinos Return to Plateau in Central Kenya

LOISABA CONSERVANCY, Kenya — Conservationists in Kenya are celebrating as rhinos were returned to a grassy plateau that hasn’t seen them in decades.

The successful move of 21 eastern black rhinos to a new home will give them space to breed and could help increase the population of the critically endangered animals. It was Kenya’s biggest rhino relocation ever.

The rhinos were taken from three parks that are becoming overcrowded to the private Loisaba Conservancy, where herds were wiped out by poaching decades ago.

“It’s been decades since rhinos roamed here, almost 50 years ago,” said Loisaba security manager Daniel Ole Yiankere. “Their numbers were severely impacted by poaching. Now, our focus is on rejuvenating this landscape and allowing rhinos to breed, aiming to restore their population to its former splendor.”

Moving rhinos safely is a serious challenge. The 18-day exercise involved tracking the rhinos using a helicopter and then shooting them with tranquilizer darts. Then the animals — which weigh about a ton each — have to be loaded into the back of a truck for the move.

Disaster nearly struck early in the relocation effort, when a tranquilized rhino stumbled into a creek. Veterinarians and rangers held the rhino’s head above water with a rope to stop it from drowning while a tranquilizer reversal drug took effect, and the rhino was released.

Some of the rhinos were transferred from Nairobi National Park and made a 300-kilometer trip. Others came from two parks closer to Loisaba.

Rhinos are generally solitary animals and are at their happiest in large territories. As numbers in the three parks where the rhinos were moved from have increased, wildlife officials decided to relocate some in the hope that they will be happier and more likely to breed.

David Ndere, an expert on rhinos at the Kenya Wildlife Service, said their reproduction rates decrease when there are too many in a territory.

“By removing some animals, we expect that the rhino population in those areas will rise up,” Ndere said. “And then we reintroduce that founder population of at least 20 animals into new areas.”

Loisaba Conservancy said it has dedicated around 25,000 hectares to the new arrivals, which are a mix of males and females.

Kenya has had relative success in reviving its black rhino population, which dipped from around 20,000 in the 1970s to below 300 in the mid-1980s because of poaching, according to conservationists, raising fears that the animals might be wiped out completely in the country. Kenya now has around 1,000 black rhinos, the third biggest population behind South Africa and Namibia.

There are just over 6,400 wild black rhinos left in the world, all of them in Africa, according to the Save the Rhino organization.

Tom Silvester, the CEO of Loisaba Conservancy, said Kenya’s plan is to get its black rhino numbers to 2,000 over the next decade.

“Once we have 2,000 individuals, we will have established a population that will give us hope that we have brought them back from extinction,” he said.

Kenyan authorities say they have relocated more than 150 rhinos in the last decade.

An attempt to move 11 rhinos in 2018 ended in disaster when all of the animals died shortly after moving.

Ten of the rhinos died from stress, dehydration and starvation intensified by salt poisoning as they struggled to adjust to saltier water in their new home, investigations found. The other one was attacked by a lion.

Since then, new guidelines have been created for the capture and moving of rhinos in Kenya. Silvester said tests have been conducted on the water quality at Loisaba.

Kenya is also home to the last two remaining northern white rhinos on the planet. Researchers said last month they hope they might be able to save that subspecies after creating an embryo in a lab from an egg and sperm previously collected from white rhinos and transferring it into a surrogate female black rhino. The pregnancy was discovered in a postmortem after the surrogate died of an infection following a flood.

Brazil’s Health Agents Hunt Mosquitos in Dengue Epidemic Fight

RIO DE JANEIRO — The small team of state public health workers slalomed between auto parts strewn across a Rio de Janeiro junkyard, looking for standing water where mosquitoes might have laid their eggs.

They were part of nationwide efforts to curtail a surge in Brazil of the mosquito-borne illness of dengue fever during the country’s key tourist season that runs through the end of February.

Paulo Cesar Gomes, a 56-year-old entomologist, found some mosquito larvae swimming in shallow rainwater inside a car bumper.

“We call this type of location a strategic point” because of the high turnover in items converging from all over, he said. “It’s difficult not to have mosquitoes here.”

Earlier in the month, just days before Rio kicked off its world-famous Carnival festivities, the city joined several states and the country’s capital in declaring a public health epidemic over this year’s greater-than-normal number of cases of dengue.

“We had more cases in January than any other January,” Ethel Maciel, head of health surveillance at Brazil’s Health Ministry, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

So far this year, Brazil has recorded 512,000 cases nationwide, including both confirmed and likely cases — nearly four times more than those registered in the same period a year ago.

There have been 425 deaths under investigation for dengue so far this year, with 75 confirmed, as compared with just over 1,000 for all of 2023.

Dengue is a viral infection transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Frequent rains and high temperatures, which accelerate the hatching of mosquito eggs and the development of larvae, make the famously hot city of Rio especially susceptible to outbreaks.

Many who are infected never develop symptoms, but dengue can cause high fever, headache, body aches, nausea and a rash, according to the World Health Organization. While most get better after a week or so, some develop a severe form that requires hospitalization and can be fatal.

Health workers like Gomes, equipped with masks and plastic gloves, meticulously combed the junkyard on a hot morning, gently kicking and shaking piled up auto parts looking for any trace of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that can spread dengue.

Whenever he saw standing water Gomes grabbed a hand pipette out of his bag and looked for larvae, which he collected in a white plastic container. Captured mosquitos and larvae are kept alive and brought to a city laboratory to be tested for dengue.

At locations with positive tests, health agents spray the walls with a product that kills mosquitoes and then monitor the location for weeks.

Maciel, from the Health Ministry, said the first warning about a possible epidemic came in September.

Brazil’s leading research institute, the state-funded Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, or Fiocruz, came up with several scenarios indicating that Brazil could have as many as 4.2 million cases this year, up from 1.6 million in 2023.

Maciel said the surge is due to excessive heat and intense rain, both possible effects of climate change or El Niño, a natural, temporary and occasional warming of part of the Pacific that shifts weather patterns across the globe.

Maciel also cited the circulation of four dengue virus serotypes at the same time, one of which authorities had not seen in 15 years.

In Rio, more than 80% of mosquito breeding sites are located in residential properties, health officials say. So, efforts to combat dengue must start in homes, and raising awareness is key, said Mário Sérgio Ribeiro, a health surveillance official for Rio de Janeiro state.

State officials launched a “10 minutes that save lives” initiative to encourage residents to inspect their homes, offices and places of worship for any standing water.

Health workers and volunteers went door to door, pacing up and down the narrow streets of Rio’s Tabajara working-class neighborhood, or favela, to spread the word. They distributed leaflets and climbed on rooftops, looking for containers with rainwater.

One elderly woman, Vilza da Costa, told the AP she believes she contracted the disease.

“It started with a fever, then my body was itching all over, weakness, and a lot of pain. I was in a very bad way,” she said. “There are a lot of mosquitoes here.”

During Carnival, which ended Wednesday, health employees welcomed visitors with free repellent. A van with a giant crossed off mosquito and the words “Against Dengue Everyday” opened and closed the parades several nights, for millions of TV viewers to see.

Maciel said the effect of Carnival will not be known for another week. Even though dengue is not transmissible from person to person, increased tourism can boost the spread of the disease to locations that had not been affected.

It’s not clear if the cases have reached a peak and now “are going to start going down, or if the worst-case scenario is indeed happening,” Maciel said.

Algeria’s Black Market for Foreign Currency Underlines Its Economic Woes

ALGIERS, Algeria — In a square near the center of Algiers, currency traders carry wads of euros, pounds and dollars, hoping to exchange them to those worried about the plummeting value of the Algerian dinar.

This black market for foreign currencies is among the signs of the economic woes plaguing Algeria. The state, reluctant to allow the exchange rate to adjust fully, has proven incapable of limiting demand among the population as confidence in the dinar remains low.

The widening parallel exchange rate underscores how everyday Algerians have lost buying power as the government has juggled competing priorities, trying to combat inflation and maintain state spending, subsidies and price controls that keep people afloat.

In the oil-rich North African nation, business owners are rumored to be dumping their assets and scrounging up euros on the black market so their wealth isn’t stuck. Middle-class people also rely on euros and dollars to buy things in short supply like medicine, vehicle parts or certain foods.

Last week, the official exchange rate allowed one euro to be sold for 145 Algerian dinar, while on the same day, currency traders were selling one euro for nearly 241 dinars on the black market — 66% higher than the official exchange rate.

Rabah Belamane, a 72-year-old retired teacher from Algiers, told The Associated Press that the official rate is a fiction and that his pension doesn’t go as far as it used to in either dinar or euro.

“The real value of the dinar is on the informal market, not in the bank, which uses an artificial rate to lie to the public,” Belamane said.

Algeria has long been known for having among the region’s most closed economies. It limits the amount of foreign currency its citizens can access to a modest tourism allowance that amounts to less than needed to carry out one of Islam’s pilgrimages to Mecca or visit family in Europe’s large Algerian diaspora.

The government estimates roughly $7 billion worth of foreign currency trades hands on the country’s black market.

From Lebanon to Nigeria, experts warn that having two parallel exchange rates can distort a country’s economy, discourage investment and encourage corruption. Algeria has historically been reluctant to lower the official value of the dinar, worried that devaluation will spike prices and anger the population.

Traders are intimately aware that the gap between the official and black market exchange rate can narrow or widen by the day. They expect it to swing up as Ramadan approaches.

“In recent days, the supply of euros has been lacking, which explains how it has shot up,” trader Nourdine Sadaoui told the AP as he took a pause from yelling “Change!” at people passing by.

That shortage may make purchasing certain goods difficult for Algerians. But some in government believe it reflects the success of import restrictions and laws limiting how many euros can be brought into the country.

Hicham Safar, the head of a finance committee in the lower house of Algeria’s Parliament, said last week that he “welcomed” such concerns. The growing chasm between the official and black market rates meant fewer euros are getting into the country, he said.

“There’s no more overcharging on imports,” he said on television station Echourouk, citing efforts by customs officials to better regulate imports through the Bank of Algeria and minimize the use of foreign currency.

For decades, steady revenue from oil and gas allowed Algeria to import everything from toothpicks to industrial machinery. The country’s large import market concentrated economic power in the hands of a small group of businessmen known to overbill clients and stash profits abroad, including in European and Emirati banks.

Since President Abdelmajid Tebboune took power, the country has targeted the so-called “oligarchs,” including businesses active in imports. Throughout his tenure, the costs of basic goods in Algerian dinars have swung and imports have been further limited.

Algeria emerged as an unexpected beneficiary of the war in Ukraine, as energy prices rose and Europe sought non-Russian suppliers of oil and gas. But the country has experienced food crises and rising anger as the prices of necessities like chicken, cooking oil and legumes have risen.

Economist Karim Allam said the strength of the euro had worked to Algeria’s detriment, cutting into the purchasing power of those who make money in dinars. He is skeptical of the idea that a shortage of foreign currencies reflects the government’s success, but also doubts that business people are fleeing the country in droves or sending money abroad.

“I don’t think they’ll take the risk of smuggling currency out of the country, which is considered an economic crime punishable by 20 years’ imprisonment,” he said.

Regardless, the falling value of the dinar on the black market is one indicator of how Algerians continue to lose purchasing power despite governmental efforts to stabilize the economy while keeping government spending and subsidies high.

“Inflation has destroyed the buying power of Algerians, who are falling into poverty. The dinar has become worthless,” said Belamane, the retired teacher.

China to Show Off Airliner at Singapore Show Amid Supply Crunch

SINGAPORE — Singapore will play host to Asia’s biggest air show next week for the first time since the end of COVID border restrictions, with regional travel rebounding and the military side of the show bristling with defensive systems and nervous arms buyers.

An expected full return of civil demand in Asia is being tested by an industry-wide supply crunch and macroeconomic headwinds, however — especially in the world’s second-largest aviation market, China — while geopolitical tensions have put weapons in the spotlight.

“Supply chain issues are limiting the ability of many airlines to upgrade their fleets and service their aircraft,” said Association of Asia Pacific Airlines head Subhas Menon.

The biennial show will feature the first trip outside Chinese territory for China’s first homegrown passenger jet, COMAC’s narrow-body C919.

With the dominant two plane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, struggling to ramp up production and meet demand for new planes, and Boeing struggling with a string of crises, air show attendees will be watching how the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC, positions itself as a viable alternative.

Many inside the industry caution that only four C919s are in service in China; the plane is only certified by Chinese regulators; and the C919 relies on international supply chains.

Nevertheless, China’s aviation authority has said it would promote the plane internationally this year and pursue European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification.

“We have also seen a growing trend where clients are including the C919 option in their fleet evaluation,” said Adam Cowburn of Alton Aviation Consultancy.

COMAC will be one of two commercial plane makers flying their planes alongside Airbus. Boeing will not send a commercial aircraft to the show this year.

It is the first major international industry event since last month’s blowout of a door plug on a 737 MAX 9 pushed Boeing into its second safety crisis in five years and sent images of a fuselage with a gaping hole whizzing across the globe.

Analyst Sash Tusa of U.K.-based Agency Partners said that in the past, the industry rarely discussed aviation safety in public, on the assumption that any mention would undermine confidence.

“But this omerta no longer seems to apply,” he added in a note.

Environmental impact

Singapore will invite industry delegates to discuss aviation’s environmental impact and will reveal a plan for making Singapore’s aviation sector sustainable. In November, the global aviation industry agreed to lower fuel carbon emissions 5% by 2030, toward a goal of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

“For the industry to meet its Fly Net Zero ambitions by 2050, Asia will be a key driver given that it will continue to remain the largest aviation market,” Cowburn said.

A massive ramp-up in sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, production is the current hope for meeting these targets, but it costs three to five times more than traditional jet fuel and there are concerns about how to sustainably meet demand.

“That awareness of aviation’s climate impact has been rising, and the questions about this industry’s license to operate have been increasingly raised — without there being a credible path of tackling that problem,” said Sami Jauhiainen of refiner Neste, which started refining SAF in Singapore last year.

Defense needs

Some new freighters are also in demand, delegates said. Amid spiraling tensions over Taiwan, disputes over South China Sea sovereignty and a spike in North Korean missile tests, regional defense budgets are rising. Systems from small drones to complex sub-hunting aircraft will be on display.

The war in Ukraine, which has seen extensive use of high-end air defenses, and repeated attacks on Red Sea shipping, may also spur interest in systems that can intercept missiles and drones, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms used to keep tabs on adversaries. No Russian companies are listed among the exhibitors at the air show.

Six air forces will stage flying demonstrations, including the United States and India.

China’s New Antarctic Research Station Renews Concerns About Potential Security Threats

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China’s inauguration of a new scientific research station in Antarctica last week has renewed debate about the purpose and impact of the rapid expansion of Chinese presence on the continent. 

Situated on Inexpressible Island near the Ross Sea, Qinling Station is China’s fifth scientific outpost and third research station on the continent that can operate year around. The station covers 5,244 square meters and can house up to 80 people during summer months, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

Qinling Station is near the U.S. McMurdo Station and just south of Australia and a  Center for Strategic and International Studies report published last April said its position could allow China to “collect signals intelligence from U.S.-allied Australia and New Zealand” as well as gather “telemetry data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities in both countries.” 

Some analysts say while Qinling Station is built for scientific purposes, some of its capabilities may be “inherently dual-use.”

“China can potentially leverage some of those resources and capabilities for military or intelligence gathering purposes,” Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at CSIS, told VOA by phone. 

He said China continues build more Antarctic research bases because it views the icy continent as part of the “strategic frontiers.” 

“Since it is an area that is further from China’s immediate periphery, Beijing wants to be on the cutting edge and be perceived as a global leader that’s on par with the U.S.,” Hart said, adding that China’s long-term goal is to have a voice in Antarctic governance by cementing a foothold there by establishing scientific research bases. 

In response to concerns about China potentially collecting intelligence on Australia and New Zealand through the station, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the base is built and operated “in full compliance with international rules and procedures.” 

“The station will contribute to humanity’s scientific understanding of the Antarctic, provide a platform for joint scientific exploration and coordination between China and other countries and help advance peace and sustainable development in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wen-bin said during the daily press conference February 7. 

Despite Beijing’s reiteration that the station abides by the rules of the Antarctic Treaty, which outlaws the military use of the continent, some experts say China’s pattern of building its research stations across Antarctica raises legitimate questions about its significant presence on the continent. 

China’s pattern of building Antarctic research bases “raises questions about whether it is committed to the principles of the Antarctic treaty and whether it plans to potentially assert a claim to Antarctica,” Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at Australian National University, told VOA by phone. 

Since China has expressed the ambition to become a great polar power, Rothwell said China’s rapid expansion of research bases in Antarctica aligns with that goal.

 “Over the last decade, China has sought to be seen as a serious state actor in polar affairs,” he said. 

China is gaining “[credibility as a serious Antarctic state through its scientific research program and its engagement in the Antarctic Treaty system,” Rothwell added. 

The day that China announced the opening of Qinling Station, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the completion of the building of the research base would “provide a strong guarantee for scientists in China and around the world to continue to explore the mysteries of nature and bravely ascend the peak of science.” 

He also called for “better understanding, protection, and utilization of the polar regions to make new and greater contributions to the benefit of humanity and the building of a community with a shared future for humanity.”  

While the Qinling Station has begun operation, Hart said more elements with potential dual-use capabilities may be added in the future.

“The capacity for this station to support habitation is already up and running but there are more elements of the overall facility that will be built out in the future,” he told VOA. 

“The main one for potential dual-use applications is the antennas and other electronic equipment that can support communication with China’s satellites,” Hart said. 

In a 2022 report on China’s military and security developments, the U.S. Department of Defense said  that China’s “strategy for Antarctica includes the use of dual-use technologies, facilities, and scientific research, which are likely intended, at least in part, to improve PLA [People’s Liberation Army] capabilities.” 

The report also indicated that China’s facilities on the continent can be reference stations for its dual-use BeiDou satellite navigation network, which is Beijing’s alternative to the U.S.-controlled global positioning system.  

Hart said that while Chinese scientists are doing legitimate work in Antarctica that should not be curtailed, “it’s important to emphasize what kind of capabilities” their research stations will have and how those capabilities could be beneficial to the Chinese government and Chinese military.

“It’s important that Antarctica remains a nonmilitarized space,” he told VOA. 

Some analysts say a way to ensure Antarctica remains nonmilitarized and that the interests of Antarctic Treaty members are guaranteed is to rely on existing inspection regimes. 

There should be “a concerted effort to use the inspection regimes that are available in Antarctica to ensure that facilities are not used for military activities or contrary to the Antarctic Treaty,” Tony Press, an expert on Antarctic affairs at the University of Tasmania, told VOA in a video interview. 

Patients Wait for Lifesaving Medications as US Drug Shortage Continues

Patients all around the world are still experiencing drug shortages long after COVID-19 supply-chain jams have cleared. The U.S. Senate is looking at solutions as a nonprofit steps in to find these drugs. VOA Senior Washington Correspondent Carolyn Presutti tells one woman’s story.

Russia Developing ‘Anti-Satellite Capability,’ White House Confirms

Russia is developing an anti-satellite weapon, the White House confirmed Thursday, after a lawmaker sounded an alarm over what he described as a serious national security threat. While White House officials say it could land Moscow in violation of a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction in space. They said it is not an urgent threat, and urged Americans not to panic, as lawmakers met behind closed doors to discuss the issue. Anita Powell reports from Washington.

Private US Spaceflight Company’s Moonshot Underway

Can the United States make a return to the surface of the moon? NASA and a private U.S. spaceflight company hope so. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

US Justice Department Says It Disrupted Russian Intelligence Hacking Network

Washington — The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday it disrupted a Russian intelligence hacking network.

“For the second time in two months, we’ve disrupted state-sponsored hackers from launching cyber-attacks behind the cover of compromised U.S. routers,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

The Justice Department said that a January 2024 court-authorized operation neutralized the network of hundreds of small office/home office (SOHO) routers controlled by Russian intelligence and used “to conceal and otherwise enable a variety of crimes.”  

“In this case, Russian intelligence services turned to criminal groups to help them target home and office routers, but the Justice Department disabled their scheme,” Attorney General Merrick Garland added.

Garland said the Justice Department was accelerating efforts to disrupt the Russian government’s cyber campaigns against the United States and its partners, including Ukraine.

Health Agencies Call for Stepped-up Action to Eliminate Cervical Cancer

GENEVA — Health agencies are urging governments and civil society to step up action to eliminate cervical cancer, a vaccine-preventable disease that kills a woman every two minutes, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.  

“It is the fourth-most common cancer among women worldwide. It is also one of the few types of cancer that can be prevented by a vaccine,” said Herve Verhoosel, spokesperson for Unitaid, an organization that provides affordable lifesaving health products for people in low- and middle-income countries. 

“Vaccination against human papillomavirus, the leading cause of cervical cancer, together with HPV screening and treatment, is a proven path to elimination,” Verhoosel said Tuesday in advance of the first global forum on elimination of cervical cancer. 

The forum, which takes place from March 5 to 7 in Cartagena, Colombia, is hosted by Spain, Colombia and nine leading development and health agencies. 

348,000 women died in 2020

Verhoosel said, “The forum offers a watershed moment for the world to collectively accelerate progress on a groundbreaking promise made in 2020, when nearly 200 countries signed on to the WHO’s global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer.” 

The World Health Organization, Unitaid and other aid agencies provided the statistics on case rates. The WHO estimates 348,000 women died of cervical cancer in 2020, 90% of them from low- and middle-income countries. It warns annual deaths from cervical cancer will likely reach 410,000 by 2030 “if we do not change course.” 

To put countries on the path to elimination, the WHO has set three targets: It calls for 90% of girls to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by age 15; 70% of women to be screened with a high-performance test by age 35 and again at 45; and for 90% of women with cervical disease to receive treatment. 

The WHO says sub-Saharan Africa has the highest cervical cancer burden globally. It notes the HIV epidemic has worsened the situation because the common HPV virus is sexually transmitted. 

Prebo Barango, cross-cutting specialist on noncommunicable diseases and special initiatives at the WHO, explains that the prevalence of cervical cancer in some countries “demonstrates the inequity of access to prevention and health care as well as social and economic deprivation” in the affected communities. 

He stressed the importance of vaccinating young girls and making access to screening and early treatment for older women more widely available. 

“It is not an either-or approach,” he said. He notes, however, that “access to screening and treatment has been very, very low because most countries have no coverage for these procedures.” 

Barriers to vaccination

The WHO reports that only one in five adolescent girls has been vaccinated against HPV, despite the vaccine’s proven efficacy. Barango explained that a key constraint related to its use is that the recommended age of 14 for receiving the vaccine “falls outside of the normal vaccination age for children.” 

Besides that, he said, “During COVID-19 there was a significant drop in the uptake of these vaccines because schools were closed” and many health facilities were focused on dealing with the pandemic. 

The World Health Organization says cost effective and evidence-based tools for screening and treatment are available. Despite this, it says barriers and inequities in the hardest-hit areas remain unacceptably high. The WHO notes that fewer than 5% of women in low- and middle-income countries are ever screened for cervical cancer. 

Unitaid spokesperson Verhoosel observed that the WHO’s recommendation of a one-dose HPV vaccine instead of the previous two-dose recommendation could prove to be a game changer. 

“A one-dose HPV vaccine opens new opportunities to reach more girls worldwide and will significantly reduce costs and logistical barriers,” he said. 

The nonprofit GAVI vaccine alliance is providing millions of low-cost HPV vaccine doses to developing countries at the affordable price of around $5.00 per dose. And Unitaid says that, together with its partners, it “has secured agreements that have reduced the price of HPV tests by nearly 40%.” 

Scientists Create New Map of the World’s Coral Reefs

SYDNEY — Using satellite technology and sophisticated machine learning, a team led by marine experts in Australia have created new maps of the world’s coral reefs.

The scientists discovered there are more coral reefs around the world than previously documented, with Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines having the most coral reefs. 

Over 100 trillion pixels of data were examined. The result is a high-resolution map that gives fresh insight into the distribution of reefs.

The Allen Coral Atlas initiative has identified approximately 348,000 square kilometers of shallow coral reefs globally to depths of up to 30 meters, an increase from previous estimates.

Experts hope the study will allow politicians, scientists and environmentalists to better understand and manage coral reef systems.

Coral reefs face a range of threats, including climate change, overfishing and pollution.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the only living thing visible from space – is also undermined by industrialization and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

“In Australia we, kind of, had a reasonable idea of where a lot of our reefs might have been,” Mitchell Lyons from the School of the Environment at Australia’s University of Queensland told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “But for some jurisdictions across the southwest Pacific or Indonesia, Philippines, there were not very good, consistent maps of where coral reefs were.  I guess the advantage of having these consistent maps all over the globe is that we can start to report and account and, I guess, conserve.”

The maps are publicly available through the Allen Coral Atlas and Google Earth Engine.

The project receives funding from a company founded by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and managed by Arizona State University in partnership with conservationists and the University of Queensland.

The full study was published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability.  It states that “coral reefs possess a quarter of all marine life and contribute to the well-being and livelihoods of a billion people worldwide.”

Bangkok Says Work from Home as Pollution Blankets City

Bangkok — Bangkok city employees have been told to work from home to avoid harmful air pollution, as a layer of noxious haze blanketed the Thai capital Thursday.

City authorities asked for cooperation from employers to help workers in the city of some 11 million people avoid the pollution, which is expected to last into Friday.

The air monitoring website IQAir ranked Bangkok among the 10 most polluted cities in the world Thursday morning.

Levels of the most dangerous PM2.5 particles — so tiny they can enter the bloodstream — were more than 15 times the World Health Organization’s annual guideline, according to IQAir.

Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt said late Wednesday that all city employees would work from home Thursday and Friday.

“I would like to ask for cooperation from the BMA network of about 151 companies and organizations, both government offices and the private sector,” he said in a statement, adding that more than 60,000 people were affected.

BMA is an abbreviation for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

Chadchart said at least 20 of Bangkok’s 50 districts were expected to have unhealthy levels of PM2.5 particles, and the problem would linger because of calm weather.

Air quality in Thailand regularly plummets in the early months of the year as smoke from farmers burning stubble in the fields adds to industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust fumes.

Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai ranked among the most polluted cities in the world on a number of days last year.

A public health crisis is brewing over the problem, with at least two million people in Thailand needing medical treatment because of pollution in 2023.

The government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, which took over in August, has promised to make tackling air pollution a “national agenda,” and a draft Clean Air Act was endorsed by his Cabinet last month.

But the problem persists, and a court in Chiang Mai last month ordered the government to come up with an urgent plan to tackle air pollution within 90 days.

Private US Moon Lander Launched Half Century After Last Apollo Lunar Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — A moon lander built by Houston-based aerospace company Intuitive Machines was launched from Florida early Thursday on a mission to conduct the first U.S. lunar touchdown in more than a half century and the first by a privately owned spacecraft.

The company’s Nova-C lander, dubbed Odysseus, lifted off shortly after 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT) atop a Falcon 9 rocket flown by Elon Musk’ SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

A live NASA-SpaceX online video feed showed the two-stage, 25-story rocket roaring off the launch pad and streaking into the dark sky over Florida’s Atlantic coast, trailed by a fiery yellowish plume of exhaust.

The launch, previously set for Wednesday morning, was postponed for 24 hours because of irregular temperatures detected in liquid methane used in the lander’s propulsion system. SpaceX said the issue was later resolved.

Although considered an Intuitive Machines mission, the IM-1 flight is carrying six NASA payloads of instruments designed to gather data about the lunar environment ahead of NASA’s planned return of astronauts to the moon later this decade.

Thursday’s launch came a month after the lunar lander of another private firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on January 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket making its debut flight.

The failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which was also flying NASA payloads to the moon, marked the third time a private company had been unable to achieve a “soft landing” on the lunar surface, following ill-fated efforts by companies from Israel and Japan.

Those mishaps illustrated the risks NASA faces in leaning more heavily on the commercial sector than it had in the past to realize its spaceflight goals.

Plans call for Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C vehicle, a hexagonal cylinder with four legs, to reach its destination after about a weeklong flight on February 22 for a landing at crater Malapert A near the moon’s south pole.

If successful, the flight would represent the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a U.S. spacecraft since the final Apollo crewed moon mission in 1972, and the first by a private company.

The feat also would mark the first journey to the lunar surface under NASA’s Artemis moon program, as the U.S. races to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

IM-1 is the latest test of NASA’s strategy of paying for the use of spacecraft built and owned by private companies to slash the cost of the Artemis missions, envisioned as precursors to human exploration of Mars.

By contrast, during the Apollo era, NASA bought rockets and other technology from the private sector, but owned and operated them itself.

NASA announced last month that it was delaying its target date for a first crewed Artemis moon landing from 2025 to late 2026, while China has said it was aiming for 2030.

Small landers such as Nova-C are expected to get there first, carrying instruments to closely survey the lunar landscape, its resources and potential hazards. Odysseus will focus on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy, precision landing technologies and navigation.

Intuitive Machine’s IM-2 mission is scheduled to land at the lunar south pole in 2024, followed by an IM-3 mission later in the year with several small rovers.

Last month, Japan became the fifth country to place a lander on the moon, with its space agency JAXA achieving an unusually precise “pinpoint” touchdown of its SLIM probe last month. Last year, India became the fourth nation to land on the moon, after Russia failed in an attempt the same month.

The United States, the former Soviet Union and China are the only other countries that have carried out successful soft lunar touchdowns. China scored a world first in 2019 by achieving the first landing on the far side of the moon.

Japan Unexpectedly Slips into Recession

TOKYO — Japan unexpectedly slipped into a recession at the end of last year, losing its title as the world’s third-biggest economy to Germany and raising doubts about when the central bank would begin to exit its decade-long ultra-loose monetary policy.

Some analysts are warning of another contraction in the current quarter as weak demand in China, sluggish consumption and production halts at a unit of Toyota Motor Corp all point to a challenging path to an economic recovery.

“What’s particularly striking is the sluggishness in consumption and capital expenditure that are key pillars of domestic demand,” said Yoshiki Shinke, senior executive economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

“The economy will continue to lack momentum for the time being with no key drivers of growth.”

Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell an annualized 0.4% in the October-December period after a 3.3% slump in the previous quarter, government data showed on Thursday, confounding market forecasts for a 1.4% increase.

Two consecutive quarters of contraction are typically considered the definition of a technical recession.

While many analysts still expect the Bank of Japan to phase out its massive monetary stimulus this year, the weak data may cast doubt on its forecast that rising wages will underpin consumption and keep inflation durably around its 2% target.

“Two consecutive declines in GDP and three consecutive declines in domestic demand are bad news, even if revisions may change the final numbers at the margin,” said Stephan Angrick, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“This makes it harder for the central bank to justify a rate hike, let alone a series of hikes.”

Economy minister Yoshitaka Shindo stressed the need to achieve solid wage growth to underpin consumption, which he described as “lacking momentum” due to rising prices.

“Our understanding is that the BOJ looks comprehensively at various data, including consumption, and risks to the economy in guiding monetary policy,” he told a news conference after the data’s release, when asked about the impact on BOJ policy.

The yen JPY was steady following the release of the data and last stood at 150.22 per dollar, pinned near a three-month low hit earlier in the week.

The Nikkei N225 rose 0.8%, reversing some of its losses made from the previous session, possibly on expectations the BOJ may continue with its massive easing program for longer than expected.

On a quarterly basis, GDP slid 0.1% against median forecasts of a 0.3% gain, and compared with a 0.8% contraction in the previous quarter.

Consumption, capital expenditure weak

Private consumption, which makes up more than half of economic activity, fell 0.2%, weaker than a market forecast for a 0.1% gain, as rising living costs and warm weather discouraged households from dining out and buying winter clothes.

Capital expenditure, another key private-sector growth engine, fell 0.1%, compared with forecasts of a 0.3% gain, as supply constraints delayed construction projects.

External demand, or exports minus imports, contributed 0.2 percentage point to GDP as exports rose 2.6% from the previous quarter, the data showed.

The BOJ has been laying the groundwork to end negative rates by April and overhaul other parts of its ultra-loose monetary framework but is likely to go slow on any subsequent policy tightening amid lingering risks, sources have told Reuters.

While BOJ officials have not offered clues on when exactly they could end negative rates, many market players expect such an action to happen either in March or April. A Reuters poll taken in January showed April as the top choice among economists for the negative rate policy to be abandoned.

Some analysts say Japan’s tight labor market and robust corporate spending plans are keeping alive the chance of an early exit from ultra-loose policy.

“While the second consecutive contraction in GDP in Q4 would suggest that Japan’s economy is now in recession, business surveys and the labor market tell a different story. Either way, growth is set to remain sluggish this year as the household savings rate has turned negative,” said Marcel Thieliant, head of Asia-Pacific at Capital Economics.

“The (BOJ) has been arguing that private consumption has ‘continued to increase moderately’ and we suspect that it will continue to strike an optimistic tone at its upcoming meeting in March,” Thieliant said, sticking to his projection the bank will end its negative interest rate policy in April.

China’s VPN Usage Nearly Doubles Amid Internet Censorship

WASHINGTON — Last year, VPN usage in China nearly doubled, according to data from IT education news outlet Techopedia, this despite the country’s strict regime of internet controls of everything from overseas websites to online games.

China’s “Great Firewall” is one of the world’s most comprehensive internet censorship regimes, preventing citizens from accessing websites like Instagram, Wikipedia and YouTube, as well most major news organizations including VOA.

VPNs are outlawed in China because they allow users to jump the “Great Firewall” and securely connect to the internet outside the country while blocking their IP address.

Rob Binns, a journalist with Techopedia, said China’s increasingly strict censorship policies may explain the rise in VPN usage there.

“Looking at VPN usage versus what it’s combating, which is online censorship, we are seeing online censorship in a range of countries, particularly China, becoming more strategic and more surgical,” Binns told VOA in an interview. 

In 2021, Chinese regulators limited teenagers’ access to video games to three hours per week — from 8 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — before unveiling more severe restrictions last December which set spending limits on video game platforms and banned incentives for daily logins.

Binns said these regulations on minors may particularly motivate Chinese usage of VPNs.

“With that younger demographic, which is traditionally, extremely, highly tech-literate demographic, they’re always going to be looking for ways to kind of circumvent that top-down pressure from governments and find ways to get around that,” Binns said. “And if that means turning to VPNs to circumvent that, then that’s certainly what we’re seeing.”

Analysts say VPNs empower Chinese internet users to discuss major political issues on the internet without facing governmental blowback.

“Circumvention tools like VPNs can enable people in China to access the global internet, including spaces where they can express themselves freely without fear of censorship,” Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at the nonprofit Freedom House, which advocates for political freedom, told VOA in an emailed response. “During unprecedented nationwide protests in late 2022, many Chinese people used VPNs to sidestep the Great Firewall and share their views on otherwise-inaccessible social media platforms.”

Vesteinsson said access to a free, open internet potentially threatens the ruling Chinese Communist Party — hence the government’s crackdowns on internet usage.

“Circumvention technology helped produce one of the most open challenges to CCP rule in decades,” Vesteinsson told VOA. “CCP authorities responded to the 2022 protests in part by scrubbing references to VPNs from the Chinese internet.”

“People face severe consequences for using prohibited VPNs, particularly if they belong to a marginalized ethnic or religious minority or try to access content censored by the authorities,” Vesteinsson added. “The government even removes discussion of VPNs from China-based social media platforms, preventing people from learning about circumvention technology.”

Analysts expect further crackdowns could lead either to additional upticks in VPN usage or a reluctance to use VPNs, depending on how China chooses to further enhance its censorship regime.

“The exact nature of the crackdown, as well as accompanying measures are what decides which effects it is likely to have,” Antonia Hmaidi, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies, told VOA in an email. “China has been so successful in managing its internet partly through making the Great Firewall work not only with fear, but also friction and flooding.”

Hmaidi adds that instead of cracking down, China could also slow the speed of all connections outside the country, which would make it more inconvenient to use VPNs, and maintain an approved list of fast connections for companies.

Biden is on TikTok Despite Security Concerns

In an effort to connect to younger voters, the Biden campaign has joined TikTok. But while many users have welcomed the move, security experts and even legislators have expressed disapproval amid long-standing privacy concerns surrounding the use of the Chinese-owned app. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias has details from Washington. (Produced by: Veronica Balderas Iglesias)